Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Varsity Numbers: Honing in

Bill Connelly again looks at which college football teams the F/+ ratings are sure about, and which teams remain a mystery (led by Appalachian State).

10 Jan 2014

NFC Divisional Round Preview

by Aaron Schatz and Vince Verhei

The NFC gives us what looks like the biggest mismatch of the weekend and what looks like the closest game. The Seahawks are one of the top teams in DVOA history, with the biggest home-field advantage in the NFL, playing a Saints team that they already destroyed a few weeks go. On the other hand, San Francisco and Carolina are two similar teams who played a 10-9 game in Week 10. The difference now is that the 49ers are much healthier.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. Other game charting data (such as defensive back coverage stats) is roughly 85 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA, which includes Wild Card weekend.

New Orleans at Seattle



Saints on Offense
NO OFF SEA DEF
DVOA 15.9% (5) -25.8% (1)
WEI DVOA 17.6% (5) -31.2% (1)
PASS 35.9% (3) -34.3% (1)
RUSH -5.3% (19) -15.1% (8)
RED ZONE 13.4% (9) -70.5% (1)


Seahawks on Offense
SEA OFF NO DEF
DVOA 9.4% (7) -5.9% (10)
WEI DVOA 9.7% (8) -5.6% (10)
PASS 27.7% (8) -9.2% (6)
RUSH 6.2% (7) -1.5% (20)
RED ZONE -1.2% (20) -4.9% (11)


Special Teams
NO SEA
DVOA -2.5% (24) 4.8% (5)
NO kickoff -2.1 (25) -3.7 (22)
SEA kickoff -0.4 (14) +5.6 (7)
NO punts +11.1 (2) +7.2 (6)
SEA punts -7.3 (27) +10.4 (4)
FG/XP -13.8 (32) +4.4 (8)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

It's difficult to look at this game without seeing it through the prism of Seattle's 34-7 blowout of the Saints on Monday Night Football back in Week 13. Nonetheless, past performance is no guarantee of future success. There have been plenty of instances in NFL history where a team has avenged a regular-season blowout with a surprise playoff win, even on the road. (Perhaps the best example in recent times came three years ago, when the Patriots clobbered the Jets 45-3 in Week 13, then lost to them in the Divisional Round at home by a score of 28-21.)

Of course, the Saints' ability to avenge that loss with a road win is complicated by questions about their struggles on the road and Seattle's phenomenal success at home. In last week's Wild Card preview, I showed that the Saints' huge home-road splits were really a one-year fluke; over the last few years combined, they really haven't had a larger home-field advantage than the average NFL team. The Saints backed me up by winning on the road in Philadelphia. However, the same can't be said for Seattle's home-field advantage. As Bill Barnwell showed in a study in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and then updated in a Grantland piece a few weeks ago, Seattle really does have a consistent home-field advantage that has been the largest in the NFL over the past decade. And theoretically, that home-field advantage could grow even stronger because of the way the crowd subconsciously affects officiating. The book Scorecasting showed that the main reason for home-field advantage seems to be that officiating tends to be slanted against the visiting team. We know that penalty rates have dropped in the playoffs over the past few years, which suggests that it might be even easier for a home defense to get away with close, physical play that borders on illegal. And no defense specializes in close, physical play that borders on illegal quite like the Seahawks. Seattle led the league with 145 penalties, including declined and offsetting. The Seahawks had 61 defensive penalties, third behind St. Louis and Houston, which included 13 defensive pass interference flags, second behind Philadelphia. A looser-called game will also help the Seattle offense, which ranked seventh in the league with 22 offensive holding calls.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

The New Orleans offense is good, but the Seattle defense is very good. Very, very good, especially against the pass. In the first half of the season, Seattle led the NFL with -24.0% DVOA against the pass. For Weeks 10-17, the Seahawks then improved that to -48.5% DVOA against the pass. In other words, SEA took the NFL's best pass defense and then gave it more improvement in the second half than any pass defense other than Baltimore and Buffalo.

Finding a weakness against the Seattle pass defense is very difficult. Seattle ranked seventh or better against all five categories of receivers, including third against tight ends and second against running backs. The first man you want to stop on the Saints, of course, is the spectacular tight end Jimmy Graham. There has been some discussion about whether the injury to linebacker K.J. Wright will make it harder for the Seahawks to cover Graham, but Wright wasn't necessarily the man covering Graham when these teams met in Week 13. Brees targeted Graham nine times in that game, and our charting only lists Wright on Graham once. In some ways, this is the downside of the way the Saints use Graham as a big wide receiver more than as a traditional tight end; if you split Graham out wide or put him in the slot, the other team can put a cornerback on him without moving their defense around too much. Most defenses wouldn't want to do that, but of course the Seahawks have the league's most physical cornerbacks. Four times in our charting for the Week 13 game, Graham was covered by a cornerback (Richard Sherman twice and Byron Maxwell twice). Twice, we list a hole in zone with someone other than Wright as the nearest zone defender, and then we have one pass with Bobby Wagner in coverage and one where defensive tackle Clinton McDonald dropped into a short zone and was actually on Graham when the Seahawks only rushed three late in the blowout.

Another reason why the Seahawks may be able to handle Graham is that Defensive Player of the Year candidate Earl Thomas really shuts down those deep seam plays. Seattle allowed a total of eight pass attempts all year listed as "deep middle." That's not eight receptions. That's eight passes, period, two of which were actually caught (Houston tight end Garrett Graham for 31 yards in Week 4 and Atlanta's Roddy White for 20 yards in Week 10). Every other team had at least 16 deep middle passes against them, with the NFL average being 25.5.

In fact, a better way to use Jimmy Graham might be to stick him in the slot and run him on little patterns over the middle. The Seahawks actually ranked just 13th in DVOA on passes to the short middle (15 yards or less through the air), 21st with 7.8 yards allowed per pass, and 26th with a 73 percent catch rate allowed. This is an area where the Saints offense excelled: second in the league in DVOA, third in the league with 8.6 yards per pass, and first in the league with a 78 percent catch rate. For the entire season, the the most common target on these short middle passes was not Graham but rather wide receiver Marques Colston, but that wasn't true in the Week 13 game. The Saints threw seven short middle passes in that game, six of which were complete for a total of 65 yards, three first downs, and a touchdown. Graham was targeted on four of those passes, including the one incompletion but also two 20-yard gains and the two-yard touchdown.

The other opportunity where things might open up for the Saints' passing game is on first downs. The Seahawks rank only 12th against the pass on first down, but then improve to first in the league on both second and third down. (Their third-down pass defense is otherworldly, with -78.9% DVOA.) The Saints are very consistent passing from down to down: sixth on first down, fifth on second down, sixth on third down. However, the Saints' offensive DVOA drops to -16.4%, 22nd in the league, on third-and-long. The Seahawks have a third-and-long defensive DVOA of -102.1%. Seriously, when Seattle knows you have to pass, you are completely terribly, violently screwed.

The pass rush presents a battle of strength against strength: the Saints ranked fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate on offense, the Seahawks seventh on defense. The Seahawks don't big-blitz much, but they're amazing when they do: they allow just 3.1 yards per pass, but only big-blitz on 4.5 percent of pass plays.* However, Drew Brees isn't someone you want to send a big blitz against. He averaged 9.3 yards per pass on these plays in 2013. The Seahawks didn't send a single big blitz against Brees in Week 13.*

With the Seattle pass defense so strong, you might think that the secret to this game might be the Saints' running game. The Seahawks were eighth against the run this year, but that's softer than a baby's bottom compared to how good their pass defense is. New Orleans improved its run offense DVOA from -19.2% in Weeks 1-9 (28th) to 7.7% in Weeks 10-17 (eighth) and Cian Fahey pointed out in this week's Film Room how the Saints are using different offensive line techniques to get improved rushing gains while Mark Ingram is playing at the highest level of his NFL career. The problem here is figuring out when the best time is to run. Seattle's relative weakness against the pass on first down suggests the Saints maybe should try passing first, and then running on second. Except the Saints were horrific running on second downs this year, 30th in the NFL with -30.8% DVOA. And while the Seahawks' defense was weakest against runs around the right end, the Saints' offensive line was also weakest when running around right end.

The other important note about the Saints offense in this game is that it is unlikely that they can jump out to an early lead and take the crowd out of the game. The Saints' offense ranks 10th in offensive DVOA in the first quarter, while the Seahawks' defense is phenomenal in the first quarter with -55.3% defensive DVOA compared to "just" -17.3% defensive DVOA from the second quarter onwards.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

Here's part of the problem for the Saints winning this game: The Saints' defense improved dramatically this year, going from dead last in DVOA in 2012 to tenth in 2013. And yet, the Seattle offense was still better than the New Orleans defense over the course of the year -- and now the Saints have to play without their excellent rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, while the Seahawks' offensive line is healthier than it has been for weeks and their best receiver, Percy Harvin, may actually see the field for only the second time this season.

We think of the Seahawks' offense as being shiny and new because they run some read options with Russell Wilson. Yet more than almost any offense in the league this year, except perhaps Philadelphia, the Seattle offense had an old school structure combining lots of runs with deep downfield shot plays. Seattle was one of just two teams to run on over half its plays (San Francisco was the other) but also ranked third in the NFL with 24 percent of its pass plays going 16 or more yards in the air (not counting passes listed without an intended receiver).

This is where we get to talk about the ridiculous Saints run defense splits again. The Saints ranked fourth in defensive DVOA against the run on first down, then 31st on second down and dead last on third down. Perhaps this has to do with the aggressive defenses that Rob Ryan likes to play in passing situations? The Seahawks' run DVOA got worse by down (fifth on first down, 12th on second, 17th on third) but that's nothing compared to what happened to the New Orleans defense. However, one shocking stat is that despite the presence of Sir Beast Mode, the Seahawks were dead last in short-yardage running, converting just 49 percent of such runs. That's very likely an issue related to the offensive line injuries.

The Saints will also have trouble stopping the Seahawks' zone read plays. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints allowed 5.6 yards per carry against zone reads, which ranked 27th in the NFL.*

What about those deep passes? Well, this is where there is news both good and bad for the Seahawks. Mostly good. Seattle had the best offensive DVOA in the league on deep passes, while the Saints' defense ranked just 16th against such passes. However, deep passes also require more time in the pocket, which means more time to sack the quarterback. Sacks don't get reflected in that DVOA rating for deep passes, since we don't necessarily know what the attempted pass yardage was going to be on a quarterback sack. Russell Wilson took a lot of sacks this year, and the Seahawks had the worst Adjusted Sack Rate in the league at 9.6 percent. Again, this likely has something to do with the offensive line injuries, but the Seahawks were also 20th in 2012. The Saints' pass rush was the best part of their defense this year, ranking fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate at 8.6 percent. So sometimes when Wilson drops back on that deep pass, he's going to light up the Saints' secondary. Sometimes he's going to hit the turf.

Oh, and sometimes he's going to get out of the pocket, and then the Saints are really in trouble .Russell Wilson had 49 scrambles out of pocket this year for 416 yards, and 101 pass attempts where he was out of the pocket (including sacks) for 680 yards. That's the most pass attempts outside the pocket of any quarterback even though the Seahawks were next-to-last in passing plays this season. Those scrambles are a big reason why you don't want to blitz Russell Wilson. Wilson gained 6.7 yards per pass against a standard pass rush but 7.9 against five rushers and 8.2 against six or more.* Meanwhile, the Saints' defense allowed 7.2 yards per pass on pass attempts outside the pocket, which ranked 31st in the NFL, and 8.6 yards per play on scrambles.*

Another problem the Saints are going to have against Seattle's passing game is dealing with a depleted secondary. Injuries to Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson have forced nickelback Corey White into the starting lineup. White had excellent game charting stats this year (4.0 yards per pass, second among 96 cornerbacks, and 66 percent Success Rate, sixth) but that was primarily covering shorter nickel routes, not covering on the outside. Success in a small sample size at nickel often does not translate to a strong performance as a starter. The other starter, Keenan Lewis, is hailed by many in the media as one of the reasons for the improvement on the Saints' defense this year, but our game charting stats disagree. We have Lewis in the lower half of the league with 8.1 yards allowed per pass (64th) and a 48 percent Success Rate (77th). For the most part, this doesn't seem to be an issue where opposing quarterbacks avoided Lewis, only targeting him when he wasn't playing his best, which would make his charting stats undervalue his actual performance. However, it is worth noting that the Seahawks specifically did seem to avoid Lewis, targeting him only twice (a 12-yard pass to Golden Tate and a 33-yard bomb to Ricardo Lockette).

The domino effect of injuries then means that with White as a starter, the third and fourth cornerbacks are street free agents Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade. The Saints also have to deal with the injury to Vaccaro; Roman Harper will be a liability against those Seahawks deep passes although he should be as good as Vaccaro would be if he's up in the box trying to stop Marshawn Lynch.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Here's yet another advantage for the Seattle Seahawks, especially once we adjust for the fact that the Saints play more than half their games indoors. Seattle ranks in the top ten in four of our five special teams categories, with particularly strong years from kicker Steven Hauschka and Golden Tate on punt returns. The one problem for Seattle has been on kickoff returns. They've tried a number of players, and none have done well. The Seahawks have four fumbles on kick returns this year, each by a different player. Robert Turbin and Doug Baldwin have split these duties in recent weeks, but if Percy Harvin is healthy enough to play this weekend and returns kicks, that gives an additional boost to the Seattle special teams.

The Saints were great when punting the ball this year, both when it came to gross punt value from Thomas Morstead and punt coverage. This has more value for the Saints against a great defense like Seattle than it does when they're in the middle of one of their usual great offensive performances. The rest of the New Orleans special teams were lousy, although we do know that Darren Sproles can be a dangerous return man and has been in the past. Shayne Graham may have hit a game-winning field goal a week ago, but he's still the very definition of a replacement-level kicker and not someone I would want out there from 50 yards with the game on the line.


OUTLOOK

It's nice that the Saints seem to have such a strong advantage over the Seahawks on short middle passes, but it takes a hell of a lot of eight-yard crossing routes to win a football game. Seattle has dominant statistics in almost every other area of this game, plus the extra week of rest and the home-field advantage. A New Orleans win would be quite the upset.

San Francisco at Carolina


49ers on Offense
SF OFF CAR DEF
DVOA 9.1% (8) -15.7% (3)
WEI DVOA 8.5% (10) -16.9% (5)
PASS 31.8% (4) -15.4% (3)
RUSH 2.2% (14) -16.3% (6)
RED ZONE 15.8% (8) -31.8% (2)
Panthers on Offense
CAR OFF SF DEF
DVOA 8.1% (10) -4.6% (13)
WEI DVOA 5.2% (11) -3.9% (11)
PASS 11.5% (14) -2.1% (10)
RUSH 9.4% (4) -8.1% (14)
RED ZONE 7.2% (14) 10.1% (20)
Special Teams
SF CAR
DVOA 3.7% (7) 1.0% (13)
SF kickoff +10.0 (3) -3.0 (20)
CAR kickoff -4.5 (25) +5.0 (8)
SF punts +10.7 (3) -1.0 (17)
CAR punts -3.6 (20) +1.6 (16)
FG/XP +5.9 (6) +2.5 (13)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Here's a game between two very similar teams, third and sixth in weighted DVOA this season. Both teams depend heavily on the running game and a mobile quarterback, and both teams have outstanding front sevens that make up for fairly anonymous secondaries. These two teams played a real slobberknocker of a game back in Week 10, won 10-9 by Carolina on the road. However, the biggest difference between that game and this one isn't the location. It's the personnel changes. Carolina may not have its best receiver, veteran Steve Smith; if he does play, it's unlikely to be at 100 percent strength due to a left knee injury. San Francisco, on the other hand, has Michael Crabtree back, who didn't play in the first game. Vernon Davis was injured in the second quarter and only played 22 snaps for the 49ers offense that day. And Aldon Smith, in his first game back after rehab, did not start for the 49ers defense and played only 12 snaps. That's three very important players who will play a much larger role for the 49ers in this game.

Fun fact: This game will be the 500th postseason game in NFL history.


WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

The big question in this game is whether the San Francisco offensive line can control Carolina's fantastic front seven. This is a big issue both in the running game and the passing game.

San Francisco is the only team other than Seattle to run on over half its offensive plays this year, but running a lot doesn't mean that the 49ers run well. As we've pointed out a few times this year, the offensive line blocking has really struggled for the 49ers this season. San Francisco finished just 29th in Adjusted Line Yards. They finished much higher in DVOA (14th) for two reasons: runs by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a few long highlight runs by Frank Gore. The 49ers ranked fifth in Open Field Yards per Carry. And like I said, the Panthers are known for their front seven, not their secondary, so they do give up some long runs (23rd in Open Field Yards per Carry).

The other surprising area where the Panthers struggled against the run this year: they surprisingly susceptible to runs in short-yardage sitations, ranking 27th with a 74 percent conversion rate allowed. However, San Francisco wasn't particularly strong in this area (55 percent, 28th).

Overall, the Panthers are very strong against the run. They ranked sixth in run defense DVOA and ninth in Adjusted Line Yards.  The Panthers are particularly strong against runs on the right side, ranking first in the league in ALY against both runs listed as right tackle and runs listed as right end. Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was particularly strong against the run; his average run tackle came after a gain of just 1.0 yards, tied with Seattle's Brandon Mebane for the best figure among defensive tackles with over 20 run tackles. The Panthers also are very good against quarterback runs, allowing 5.8 yards per carry. That ranks in the NFL top ten.

With an excellent front four, the Panthers don't have to blitz as much as other teams, which is good because Colin Kaepernick plays very well against the blitz. He jumps up to 8.8 yards per pass against a big blitz (six or more pass rushers) but the Panthers were near the bottom of the league, big-blitzing on less than five percent of all pass plays.*

A more common strategy for Carolina is to send a defensive back in on a blitz, and this is where we get strength against strength. Carolina allowed just 3.7 yards per pass when blitzing a defensive back, second in the NFL behind Buffalo... but Kaepernick gained 9.3 yards per pass against defensive back blitzes, third in the league behind Russell Wilson and Josh McCown.*

One piece of good news for the 49ers is that Kaepernick has a tendency to keep the chains moving even when it gets to third down. The 49ers rank fifth in pass offense on first down, then 19th on second down, but were the best team in the league passing on third down. (The ranks for the Carolina defense go second, fifth, and 11th, respectively.) The pass is a bigger problem for Carolina on third-and-short rather than third-and-long, however. The Panthers rank 20th in defense when it is third down with 1-6 yards to go, but fifth on third down with seven or more yards to go.

The 49ers' passing game has improved a little bit since the return of Michael Crabtree. San Francisco's passing offense in Weeks 1-12 was seventh in DVOA at 26.5%. Since Week 13, when Crabtree returned, the 49ers have passing DVOA of 41.9%, fourth in the league.

The Panthers tend to play a lot of zone defense and leave their cornerbacks on specific sides of the field, so who covers Crabtree and who covers Anquan Boldin will really be up to where they line up on the field. Captain Munnerlyn starts on the left side (offensive right) with Melvin White on the other side, and they had opposite charting stats this year. Munnerlyn came out decent in Success Rate (59 percent, 24th out of 96 cornerbacks) but will give up deep passes and was poor in yards per pass (8.3, 67th). Melvin White, on the other hand, gave up just 6.5 yards per pass (27th) but allowed a 52 percent Success Rate (54th). Nickelback Drayton Florence has been by far Carolina's best cornerback this year, but his outstanding stats are definitely in part a product of small sample size. This year, Florence has allowed 5.0 yards per pass (sixth in the NFL) with a 69 percent Success Rate (fourth), but he's had some awful years in the past too. His charting stats have been even more inconsistent from year to year than the usual for cornerbacks.

As for covering Vernon Davis, the Panthers rank 11th in the league in DVOA against tight ends. Davis was targeted only twice in the Week 10 game because he left early with an injury, but looking at Carolina's habits against similar tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Tim Wright) you see that the Panthers tend to mix up coverage, with tight ends being covered by either Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, or safety Quintin Mikell.

Carolina's defense declines a bit after halftime, ranking second DVOA in the first two quarters but ninth from the third quarter on. However, no matter what quarter, the Panthers had the best defensive DVOA in the league this year when winning by more than a touchdown. When the defensive ends can pin their ears back and concentrate on the pass, they really get after the quarterback.


WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

While the Panthers blitz less than most other teams, nobody blitzes less than the 49ers. San Francisco sends five or more pass rushers 19.4 percent of the time and six or more pass rushers 2.4 percent of the time. The pass rush includes a defensive back just 4.3 percent of the time. The first figure ranks 30th in the league; the other two rank dead last.*

It will be interesting to see if the 49ers switch up this strategy because Newton is one of the most blitzed quarterbacks in the NFL. He faced five or more pass rushers 40 percent of the time (third in the NFL), six or more 13.3 percent of the time (first) and a defensive back blitz 14.1 percent of the time (fourth).* Newton's numbers against the blitz look a bit fluky, especially when you compare them with his numbers from 2011 and 2012. Combine them, and you probably get a more accurate picture, which would say that he declines a little bit against a heavier pass rush but does well against defensive back blitzes.

Cam Newton vs. Pass Rush, 2011-2013
Year 3-4 Rushers 5 Rushers 6+ Rushers DB Blitz
2011 7.2 7.5 5.3 7.5
2012 7.3 7.1 5.7 7.9
2013 6.5 4.2 7.6 7.3
3-YR 7.0 6.0 6.3 7.5

Unlike with Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, it isn't particularly dangerous when Newton gets out of the pocket. Only 34 of his 100 runs this year were scrambles on designed pass plays. He had just 42 pass plays outside the pocket and averaged only 3.0 yards per play, so he's not a throw-on-the-run guy.* SF allowed 3.4 yards per pass outside the pocket, and 7.3 yards per rush against quarterbacks; both numbers were a little better than the NFL average.

San Francisco's pass rush is better than it looked for much of the year, thanks to the return of Aldon Smith. The 49ers had a 6.0 Adjusted Sack Rate this year, 29th in the NFL -- but if you only count when Smith was active, that goes up to 6.8 percent, which would be 16th. Carolina's offense ranked 25th at 8.3 percent, and Newton really takes sacks once you get to third down. Carolina's ASR goes from 5.2 percent on first down (sixth in the NFL) to 8.0 percent on second down (26th) and then 12.6 percent on third or fourth down (dead last).

San Francisco's three cornerbacks all have similar game charting stats. All three rank in the 50s in Success Rate, although Tarell Brown has given up fewer yards per pass (6.4, 26th) than Carlos Rogers (7.4, 49th) and Tramaine Brock (7.6, 55th). The Panthers are best when throwing shorter passes to the left side of the field, usually to either Steve Smith or Greg Olsen. That should mean more work for Brown than for Brock or Rogers, whoever is on the other side. With NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis around, of course, the 49ers excel against passes right in the middle of the field: they ranked third in DVOA for passes marked "short middle" (15 or fewer yards through the air) and sixth with 6.2 yards per pass allowed.

The Panthers' passing game hasn't been quite as dependent on Smith as it has in the past, so if he's not playing up to his usual level, it's not a killer. But it hurts. None of the Carolina receivers were particularly strong or weak this year, all hovering around 0% DVOA. The surprisingly important weapons in the passing game are actually running backs DeAngelo Williams (15.9% receiving DVOA) and Mike Tolbert (26.8% receiving DVOA), but the 49ers were seventh in DVOA against running backs in the passing game and allowed just 30 receiving yards per game.

When it comes to the running game, things will be very different when we flip which offense is on the field. San Francisco's running game gets stuffed at the line a lot, but also has a good number of highlight runs, which is an area where the Panthers' defense is susceptible. On the other hand, Carolina's offense is much better with steady gains -- they rank 14th in Adjusted Line Yards but 22nd in Second-Level Yards and 25th in Open-Field Yards. The 49ers' defense, meanwhile, is just 22nd in ALY and a shocking 31st at stuffing runners (just 14 percent of RB carries) but ranks sixth in the league preventing Second-Level Yards and second preventing Open-Field Yards, thanks in part to the safety tandem of Donte Whitner and Eric Reid.

The San Francisco run defense does get shockingly porous in the red zone, however. They allow a red-zone rushing DVOA of 44.4%, which ranks dead last in the NFL. That won't hurt against Cam Newton, will it? Actually, Carolina's red-zone rushing DVOA is a surprisingly low 15.9% (11th), but this is still a big advantage for the Panthers.

Other than when Newton takes the ball for a quarterback power at the goal line, Carolina's running game is best when running outside rather than inside, but San Francisco's run defense is also better against outside runs than against inside runs.

In the section above about the matchup between the Carolina defense and the San Francisco offense, we pointed out that the Carolina defense has the league's best DVOA when winning by more than a touchdown. Well, a late comeback will be a lot more likely for Carolina than it would be for San Francisco. The 49ers defense ranks 30th in the NFL when winning by more than a touchdown. The 49ers' defense also declined a bit in DVOA when winning big in both 2011 and 2012, although not by anywhere near as much.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both of these teams are good all-around on special teams, although San Francisco is a bit better. Phil Dawson had an excellent year on both kickoffs and field goals, and Andy Lee has probably been the best punter in the NFL for a few years now. The 49ers' returns have improved significantly since they waived Kyle Williams and had LaMichael James take over both jobs. Carolina is particularly strong on kickoffs, and Graham Gano led the league with an 80 percent touchback rate. The Panthers' punt returns are a bit better than their rank of 17th would indicate; Ted Ginn had positive value on his returns, but the team had negative value because of a handful of poor punt returns by other players.


OUTLOOK

This is definitely the closest of the weekend's games and the toughest to pick a favorite for. The Panthers were slightly better than the 49ers during the regular season, and they have the benefit of home-field advantage, but the 49ers are going to be a better team with Crabtree, Davis, and Smith on the field for the whole game. For the most part, it comes down to which team can get to the other quarterback more often with just four guys so that they can drop seven into coverage -- except that when the Panthers get to Kaepernick, the play isn't necessarily over because he's better outside the pocket than Newton. That, plus the return of Crabtree, might tip the scales slightly to San Francisco even though our numbers slightly favor Carolina.


STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 10 Jan 2014

35 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2014, 5:33pm by KamMoye

Comments

1
by PaddyPat :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 9:13pm

In the fifth paragraph under "When the Saints have the Ball," you have made the mistake of using "Saints" interchangeably with "Seahawks," so that all the clear references to Seattle say "Saints".

4
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:44pm

Will fix.

6
by PaddyPat :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:53pm

Cool. Great analysis again, as usual!

2
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:14pm

" In the first half of the season, Seattle led the NFL with -24.0% DVOA against the pass. For Weeks 10-17, the Seahawks then improved that to -48.5% DVOA against the pass."

What I got out of that was... the 2002 Buccaneers had a better pass defense for a whole season (-51.9%) than Seattle's second half. Wow.

12
by willybhu :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 12:47am

That's terrifying, considering the Seahawks had something like 10 interceptions in 9 quarters or something at some point in the second half.

3
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:25pm

"Seattle allowed a total of eight pass attempts all year listed as "deep middle.""

How many did Seattle throw themselves? Based on that graph by Fahey I'm guessing extremely few, depending on your definition of deep and middle.

5
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:45pm

Only two, which is mind-boggling. I meant to mention it above. This wasn't an issue of the CenturyLink Field scorers not wanting to mark passes as "middle," because the Seahawks didn't get many passes listed as deep middle either for or against them on the road either.

7
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:55pm

Sounds about right.

I mean, I understand that "red-line" passes are safer and all that, but when you don't throw passes to the deep middle, opponents don't have to fear any seam routes or deep posts, and it makes it much easier to defend. Deep middle passes basically won them the Patriots game last year.

27
by Theo :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 4:25pm

If your own defense is teaching you not to do it in practice, you won't do it in games either.

8
by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 12:06am

I don't think the Saints can win if they give up 20 points or more, unless the Seahawks turn the ball over multiple times, giving short fields to the Saints. I think Payton needs to do something radical to increase the chance of his team winning, but I'm not sure what it should be.

I haven't watched the Panthers enough to have a good handle on that game.

9
by PaddyPat :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 12:09am

Surprise onside kick?

10
by Perfundle :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 12:11am

Win the coin flip, defer, then onside kick. No need to wait until the second half.

11
by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 12:15am

That ain't bad, actually, in that it is a play where crowd noise has no effect.

13
by knarsu3 :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 1:19am

"Success in a small sample size at nickel often does not translate to a strong performance as a starter."

Have you guys done any research on this that I missed? Or is this an assumption? (which is probably correct because of the small sample size)

14
by PaddyPat :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 1:33am

I think there is some data on this, though probably, in turn, an insufficient sample. But I recall that more than once a fantastic nickelback showed up very poorly when pressed into more regular service. Then again, there does seem to be some evidence that nickelback is a slightly separate skill set.

15
by DEW (not verified) :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 2:19am

I'm wondering why there seems to be this consensus opinion that Percy Harvin is the best WR on the Seahawks? Sure, he's always had a lot of potential, and his special teams value is certainly significant, but as far as I can tell he seems to be a slightly improved but more injury-prone version of Doug Baldwin (who may be a better pure receiver anyway), and Tate might be better than either of them. Of course, Harvin's spent his entire career having passes thrown to him by Minnesota QBs, but even so...

16
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 2:52am

The hyperventilating hype around the Seahawks blogs is that the addition of Percy Harvin will make THE difference in the postseason for the Seahawks. Nope! He will certainly be an another factor that Rob Ryan must account for. But if Seattle is to win on offense (or not), it will be because of the play of Russell Wilson, Marshaun Lynch and the Seahawks' offensive line.

20
by Perfundle :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 5:00am

Really now. Which blogs are those, exactly? The biggest one that's not a SBNation site is probably Hawkblogger, and his most prominent Harvin article, http://www.hawkblogger.com/2014/01/percy-harvins-return-may-be-nfl-first..., is hardly an apotheosis of an immortal. If you mean Field Gulls commentors, those are mostly in jest.

As for the play of Wilson, I don't see how even adding a slightly improved version of Baldwin wouldn't help Wilson's play a lot, considering that Baldwin is the #2 receiver by DVOA; it still remains to be seen if he can get to anything approaching his original level coming back from injury.

22
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 1:05pm

Yeah, I'm mostly refering to Field Gulls commentors but I don't get the sense that they are made in jest (OK, some for sure). I was just agreeing with DEW from a different angle.

24
by formido :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 3:57pm

For the reasons described clearly by Greg Cosell:

http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nfl-shutdown-corner/cosell-seahawks-set-to...

...which were fully evident in his brief time during the Minny game. In two targets he had a leaping, juggling 17 yard 3rd down conversion on a TD scoring drive and drew a 40 yard DPI. On his only other touch of the game, 58 yard kick return.

If you can't see how much faster he is than other players or how that can be used by a smart team to tilt the field, watch more tape.

17
by maxnote :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 2:56am

I have a question:

When a team has less than -100% DVOA in a certain situation, as the Seahawks do in third down pass defense, does that mean a average team playing against them would on average have negative efficiency, and would be better off spiking the ball than running a play (at least in theory)?

If so, that is pretty amazing.

Also, as an aside, I really like seeing the DVOA splits for each category in offense, defense, and special teams. I know it would be too much in the regular season, but I think it's a fascinating way to look at matchups.

18
by Vincent Verhei :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 4:13am

When a team has less than -100% DVOA in a certain situation, as the Seahawks do in third down pass defense, does that mean a average team playing against them would on average have negative efficiency, and would be better off spiking the ball than running a play (at least in theory)?

Specifically, it's third-and-long (7-plus yards to go) where Seattle's defense dips below -100% DVOA. Their third-and-long numbers: 44-of-79 passing (56%) for 341 yards (4.3-yard average), plus three DPIs for 83 more yards, with four interceptions and 13 sacks. Including the DPIs, they've given up 19 first downs on third-and-long, and only one touchdown. Oh, and those sacks have produced four fumbles. When (sacks + fumbles + INTs) ends up greater than first downs, you could argue that yes, opponents would have been better off just throwing the ball away.

Also, as an aside, I really like seeing the DVOA splits for each category in offense, defense, and special teams. I know it would be too much in the regular season, but I think it's a fascinating way to look at matchups.

Those are available all year long for every team for FO Premium Subscribers.

30
by EricL :: Sun, 01/12/2014 - 2:09am

And, how did 3rd and long turn out for the Saints today?

Walking through the play-by-play currently on NFL.com, the Saints faced 3rd and long 6 times during the game. Brees went 2 for 5 for 23 yards, zero first downs, and a sack/fumble (recovered by the Saints).

That's now 19 first downs allowed for the year, vs 23 (sack+fumble+INT) when the Seahawks D gets to 3rd and long.

31
by Will Allen :: Sun, 01/12/2014 - 11:39am

Yes, when the wind is blowing 30 miles an hour, in the sleet and rain, in Seattle, the Seahawks defense is particularly formidable on third and long.

No, I'm not ripping Seattle's defense. They are terrific. Let us not get a front row seat in the Small Sample Size Theater, however.

32
by EricL :: Sun, 01/12/2014 - 12:24pm

Oh, I'm not getting excited about SSS, but just noting that how that particular stat played out during the game. The numbers were actually better for Seattle than what my gut told me while watching the game.

33
by jebmak :: Sun, 01/12/2014 - 12:42pm

That seems like a weird use of 'Small Sample Size Theater'. I mean, we expected Seattle to be ridiculously good on 3rd and long, and they were.

If they had been terrible and allowed 3 first downs with a TD, and he was saying that based on that one game, the numbers were wrong from the beginning, then I would bring up SSST. But in this case, the sample size is still a full year.

34
by Will Allen :: Mon, 01/13/2014 - 9:12am

Look, if Usain Bolt runs a great 100 meter dash, with a 15 m.p.h. wind at his back, it really isn't notable. Similarly, if a terrific defense has a good day on 3rd and long, on a day when the crew of an Alaskan crab boat would say the weather sucks, it doesn't tell us much.

19
by Perfundle :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 4:46am

Wait a minute. The Saints didn't even break -20% DVOA in the first Seahawks game? I guess there weren't any interceptions, only one sack, and a fumble that DVOA doesn't know was returned for a touchdown, but that's still impressively high.

21
by Ryan D. :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 10:39am

"The 49ers defense ranks 30th in the NFL when winning by more than a touchdown."

Maybe Danny was on to something...

23
by kaepernicus (not verified) :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 2:31pm

Is it me or is the perception of the 49ers and the reality the biggest disparity we have ever seen? Conventional analysts all talk defense, offensive line and running game as their strengths when advanced stats say it is the opposite. Kaepernick carried this offense the entire year and especially on third down. Also they say he is the beneficiary of great weapons which seems right until you look at the weapons history. Boldin had his best year by far in his career at 33. Davis went from DVOA average his entire career to elite with significant usage increase. Crabtree went from potential draft bust to top 5 receiver in the league all with an awful offensive line on passes. Add to this the regression of there running game and it has pretty much all been on Kaepernick to move the ball. That is what sets him a part from Wilson, RG3 and Newton. Wilson pretty much falls apart when the run game fails, Arizona anyone? Kaepernick is very high variance but has shown that he can eviscerate elite pass defenses with his arm, Arizona 3 times and Chicago last year. Wilson is also much more reliant on zone read. Also the dude is 3-0 against Aaron Rodgers 1-0 against Tom Brady and almost 2-0 against Drew Brees with road wins against all of them. Sorry for the rant but the ridiculous group think going on in the national media has pretty much made me drink more. The biggest hole in his game is in the redone if he gets better there and holds steady in the other areas he enters elite QB status.

26
by formido :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 4:04pm

You must not be familiar with Wilson's work against SF last last season or against Arizona on the road earlier this season or the 300 yard game with a high passer rating against Carolina earlier this season. How did Kap do against Carolina again?

29
by kaepernicus (not verified) :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 5:33pm

He has been pretty average against the 49ers Lynch was the killer but that Carolina game was really impressive. Honestly I should have talked about Luck. Maybe it's NFC West homerism but I would take Kaepernick or Wilson over all of them. Wilson actually reminds me a lot of Steve Young. He also throws the best deep ball in the game. I would take Kaepernick on ceiling alone but Wilson is terrifying every time he breaks the pocket and definitely has a shot to be one best of all-time.

25
by formido :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 4:00pm

So, New Orleans led the NFL in offensive holding. That's not worth a mention when you were claiming that looser officiating was clearly to Seattle's advantage? If I see a disparity in PI calls against Seattle with no concomitant disparity on holding for New Orleans, I will probably be cross. Seems like the media and national analysts the last couple days are doing everything in their power to prime that pump.

28
by Paul M (not verified) :: Sat, 01/11/2014 - 4:42pm

Would an upset in any of these four games really be all that surprising?

1) Brady has been mostly mediocre in the postseason since 2007; the NE defense is suspect (yes, Indy even more so), Luck has a bit of an aura around him and his comeback ability, and NE has lost in Foxborough plenty-- the least likely upset of the three bigger spreads but still entirely possible;

2) Saints just shed a big part of the "can't win on road label"; tough to beat a team twice in the same year at the same venue; they have motivation beyond the normal given the 2010 outcome; Seattle's offense may be just creaky enough to make this a game around 20 pts each, which becomes eminently winable for N.O. And oh yeah, the Number One regular season DVOA team is hardly a lock to win either of the next two games;

3. Chargers have won 5 in a row, including winning at Denver. They are the best reflection of the type of team since 2010 that has gone on to win the SB. Manning is, to put it mildly, less than great in the postseason. And maybe not so hot outdoors in the cold, either. Familiarity in this case probably is a good thing for the underdog.

4. Two even teams in the other game.

I am not denigrating the reams of analysis FO has given us-- all very valid, all very interesting. But at some level we have grown to expect the unexpected at this stage of the process. Which may mean Carolina simply goes out and plays a damn good game and wins, and two of the big favorites-- call them Seattle and Denver--- lay an egg and lose.

35
by KamMoye :: Wed, 01/15/2014 - 5:33pm

FO should really work on getting these up Thursday, not Friday. I have been interested in checking these out, both Wild Card and Divisional Round weekend, but they've gone up too late for it to work out with my schedule.

Also: the CAPTCHA is awful. I keep putting it in and it keeps saying it's wrong. What's the point of having an account if it keeps thinking I'm spam?